For immigrant families without biological parents, separation might be permanent
“Grandma Rosy” is back home now, in El Salvador, living alone, without the 12-year-old granddaughter she is raising.
Earlier this year the pair spent a month traveling on foot and by bus to get to the United States to seek asylum. But last month the grandmother was deported. The girl, meanwhile, spent about two months in custody as part of the Trump administration’s immigration policy, and was later released to a relative.
Their story has a twist: While you’ve heard a lot about immigrant children who remain in the United States and separated from their parents, the grandmother and granddaughter are part of another group – non-parental families who’ve also been separated at the border.
Most of these non-parent families haven’t been covered much in the media. And it’s unclear exactly how many people are in their situation, nor is it known how many of the nearly 500 immigrant children who remain in federal custody arrived in the United States with people who are not their biological parents.
Advocates say only that they know of numerous cases of grandparents, older siblings, aunts and other family members who are guardians of children they tried to bring into the country, and who have either been deported and blocked from reunification or remain in detention.
Their fate is murky. For now, non-parental relatives appear to fall outside of a June 26 preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego. Sabraw ordered that some 2,600 children be reunified with their parents within 30 days in response to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU against the Trump administration.
Late Thursday, however, an 81-year-old Honduran great-grandmother who is in custody and was scheduled to be deported, won a temporary restraining order from a federal district court judge in Washington D.C., halting the government’s efforts to send her home while her court case is being reviewed.
Immigrants and their advocates argue that extended family members serving as guardians should be covered by Judge Sabraw’s order.
“They are the de facto parents. They should also be eligible for reunification,” said Lizbeth Mateo, a Los Angeles-area attorney who represents Rosy and seven other clients who are guardians of the children they brought to the U.S.
“The conversation has always been around biological parents. The (court) order doesn’t define parents, but the government is defining it in a very narrow manner. Because of that, (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is basically refusing to reunite these families.”
Mateo said Friday that she and others look to seek clarification from the court on whether their clients can be included in the reunification order.
“Families come in all types of shapes and forms,” she said.
One grandmother’s story
“Grandma Rosy,” a pseudonym given to her by immigrant rights advocates and used to protect her safety in El Salvador, was among the thousands of adult immigrants separated from children earlier this year. Under a now abandoned Trump administration zero-tolerance policy, children and adults were separated at the border, whether they arrived illegally or legally turned themselves as they sought asylum.
Rosy said she came to the United States so her granddaughter wouldn’t suffer the same fate her daughter faced 10 years ago, when she was “disappeared” by gang members in her hometown in El Salvador.
The grandchild was 2 at the time and her father wasn’t involved in their lives. So Rosy raised her on her own.
Fast-forward to last fall, when a man carrying a gun approached her and the child after school and demanded that she turn over her now pre-teen granddaughter to work as look-out.
Rosy said she managed to deflect him. But from that day on, she took a taxi with her granddaughter to and from school and never left her side. Then, earlier this year, the same gang demanded both her granddaughter and money. That’s when Rosy took off with her granddaughter, hoping for a shot at asylum in the United States.
The pair arrived in Texas on May 6.
“I told the official, ‘I’m the grandmother.’ And I asked if they could give us asylum,” she said.
“They separated us the same day and I wasn’t able to see her again.”
Rosy, 54, was detained for over three months at facilities in Pearsall and Laredo,Texas. She was able to speak to her granddaughter by phone only once while in detention.
Several times, she said she was pressured to sign documents agreeing to be separated from her granddaughter. But she refused.
“I was told that my girl didn’t need me anymore. El deportador (person in charge of the case,) said they would tell her I abandoned her. And I said: ‘No. I never abandoned her,’” she recounted in Spanish.
Her sisters, Texas residents who visited her regularly, helped her get legal help.
“My sister would call me and ask me what was happening with the girl, and I didn’t know what to tell her. (Officials) told me they were going to put the girl in a refuge near me,” said the woman’s sister, Alma Hernandez, a Houston resident. “Then they sent her to New York.”
After spending about two months in a New York facility, the girl was approved to go live with her aunt, a U.S. citizen, while her immigration status is reviewed. The girl is in school – fifth-grade, one year behind because she doesn’t speak English. She seems happy at times, weepy and melancholic at others, Hernandez said.
Rosy, meanwhile, avoided deportation at least twice. Once, she was already aboard a plane, her feet and hands shackled in handcuffs and a chain around her waist, when she was abruptly deboarded. That reprieve was possibly a result of pressure from a congressional office and work by advocates, said Bethany Carson, immigration researcher and organizer for Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit working to help immigrants incarcerated in Texas facilities.
But the reprieve didn’t last. A week later, on Aug. 19, she was deported.
It’s hard to say how many other cases exist like Rosy’s.
Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based group, knows of at least 15 separated families at three detention centers in Texas involving guardians but there could be dozens if not hundreds more across the country, Carson said.
“I think the government is trying to figure out how far they can go. There needs to be a court decision,” Carson said.
“These family members, in the majority of cases, are the only people the child knows – people who have been caring for them most of their lives,” Carson said.
That would include people like the great-grandmother who won on Thursday a temporary restraining order halting her deportation. She said she fled her homeland with her family, including a great-grandson she has raised, to avoid gang violence. The rest of the family was released, but not the 81-year-old woman, advocates said.
It also includes older siblings like Lesbi, a 30-year-old Honduran woman who has legal custody of her 15-year-old sister, whom she has raised since their mother died, Carson said. The older woman is being detained at Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas, while her sister was released to a cousin in Atlanta.
And it includes even younger people who have assumed parental roles, like a 19-year-old Honduran woman who has taken care of her 10-year-old brother since he was baby, when they were abandoned by their parents.
“She calls him ‘my son,’” Mateo said.
The woman, known as “Linse,” is at the Port Isabel center in Texas while the boy was transferred to a facility in Chicago.
“She’s been able to talk to him only once. He’s very traumatized. He cried. When they removed him from her arms, he was screaming and crying. The officer said ‘He’s old enough. He should understand.’”
Before arriving, Linse had scraped enough money to buy him new pants, but because she wanted them to last a long time, she bought them a size too big, and got him a belt.
“When they got to (immigration) custody, they took away the belt,” Mateo said. “He was so embarrassed because the pants kept falling. And that worries her; how this child is being treated.”
Rosy, the grandmother who was deported to El Salvador, said the term ‘parent’ can have many definitions.
“The mother is the one who raises a child, not the one who gives birth.”